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Katie Staiger Smith overcame an ACL injury in her second game at Baylor to become one of the program’s all-time top players.

Speegleville Road overpass could boost growing Highway 84 corridor, should be ready by summer

A stoplight at U.S. Highway 84 and Speegleville Road has served as a speed bump on the road to progress between McGregor and Waco’s outskirts.

Motorists traveling at speeds exceeding 60 mph faced a screeching halt to their commute. By August it should become a distant memory. An overpass will carry Highway 84 traffic on its merry way to new subdivisions, stores and restaurants.

“It’s going to be spectacular, wonderful for development along 84,” said Scott Bland, a custom homebuilder with keen interest in western McLennan County. “In 10 years, that corridor could look like Hewitt Drive.”

There is “no doubt that project was needed” to accommodate growth along that stretch of Highway 84, said Precinct 4 McLennan County Commissioner Ben Perry, who represents the area.

“Mornings and evenings, there was a bottleneck there,” Perry said. “With the overpass in place and the service roads functional, that should become a very smooth way to travel.”

But caution flags remain to be navigated before the race is won.

The Texas Department of Transportation has closed Speegleville Road at Highway 84 to complete a paving phase, TxDOT spokesman Jake Smith said.

Motorists can expect the closing to last through this week.

Southbound traffic on Speegleville Road will be directed west on 84 and will take a U-turn at Harris Creek. Northbound traffic on Speegleville/Old Lorena Road will detour east on 84 and take the turnaround at the South Bosque River overpass.

Crews will open both new U.S. 84 U-turn lanes during the closure.

The big idea behind the $20.5 million project is to create a freeway design. The centerpiece is a diamond interchange with two bridges carrying eastbound and westbound Highway 84 traffic over Speegleville Road.

Work started in April 2018, with Big Creek Construction, of Hewitt, serving as general contractor. The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization has had the overpass in its planning documents since 2000.

“We’re looking at completion this summer,” Waco area TxDOT engineer Clayton Zacha said. “New 84 bridges should open in late May, early June.”

Smith said the project should be fully completed in August.

Its biggest plus is allowing the 25,000 vehicles a day traveling 84 to bypass the intersection without stopping, he said.

After all, the highway’s only traffic light between Waco and McGregor is flickering out.

“This project has been on the books eight or nine years,” Bland said. “Nobody wanted to open a Sonic or a Chick-fil-A. They didn’t want the highway destroyed (during construction), so nobody could get to you.”

Completion removes that uncertainty, Bland said.

The West Highway 84 corridor has been a hot homebuilding market in the county more than two decades, giving rise to subdivisions including Hidden Valley, Stone Creek Ranch, Harris Creek, SunWest and Twin Rivers.

Homebuilding titans Stylecraft and D.R. Horton continue to collaborate on Park Meadows, a 1,500-home subdivision in far western Waco near Hewitt.

Bland said he is involved in The Parks, a new subdivision sprouting at Cotton Belt Parkway and Highway 84 in McGregor, part of that community’s economic revival sparked by the SpaceX rocket-testing operation that employs 500 people earning excellent wages and needing places to call home.

McGregor has a 10,000-acre industrial park, the land deeded to the city by the U.S. Department of the Navy. The city continues to field inquiries from prospects eyeing the area’s potential, said Andrew Smith, executive director of the McGregor Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.

“McGregor schools are getting a great reputation, and Midway ISD has always been great,” Bland said, addressing the Highway 84 corridor’s appeal to families and young professionals. “To me there is not a better area than down Highway 84 in western McLennan County. It will be fantastic to watch that growth.”

Real estate agent Gregg Glime and Dallas-based developer Marshall Stewman are promoting The Overlook at Bosque Ridge, a venture at U.S. Highway 84 and Ritchie Road, on the Waco side of the Speegleville Road intersection.

“It was a logjam. As 84 developed, dealing with that intersection became a necessity,” Glime said. “The light added 50% to the commute time getting into Waco. I think what’s happening now will speed up residential development.”

As for The Overlook, Glime said negotiations continue to bring in a steakhouse, ice cream parlor, two coffee retailers and a small grocery store.

“Some have tapped their brakes a little bit due to the COVID-19 situation, but they are not pulling out of the market,” he said.

More seats than audience allowed as Hippodrome brings first-run movies back to Waco

The Waco Hippodrome brought first-run films back to Waco for the first time in six weeks this weekend, and ticket sales for a few screenings reflected a new reality: Sellouts measured in 20 tickets or fewer.

The Hippodrome resumed showing movies on its five screens and reopened its Raleigh restaurant after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott included movie theaters in an April 27 order. Abbott allowed limited reopenings for many Texas businesses and restaurants after weeks of shutdown to limit spread of the novel coronavirus.

Movie theaters were permitted to show films again, but only at 25% capacity and with social distancing measures in place.

For the Hippodrome, that means limited ability for ticket buyers to choose their seats and more frequent cleaning of seats, tables, restrooms and other places with customer traffic.

Still, a pent-up Waco interest in moviegoing kept the box office busy on its first day back.

“Phones are kinda ringing off the hook,” Hippodrome communications and design coordinator Molly Noah said.

Screening this weekend are “Trolls World Tour,” “The Way Back” with Ben Affleck, “The Invisible Man” starring Elisabeth Moss, the inspirational “I Still Believe,” and the Vin Diesel action film “Bloodshot.” Each film will have four screenings daily.

The 25% occupancy restrictions mean the Hippodrome’s theaters will sell out screenings at much smaller numbers — about 50 seats for the main theater, 33 for the balcony theater and fewer than 20 apiece for the three newer screening rooms — leading Hippodrome employees to recommend moviegoers call in advance about ticket availability.

While the movie theater was closed to the public, the Hippodrome’s staff spent the downtime preparing for customers’ return, repainting walls with an oil-based, less permeable paint; deep cleaning and sanitizing carpets and floors; and installing 22 sanitizing stations at theater entrances and exits, restrooms and the building’s elevator.

The theater became the first in Waco to return to operations as coronavirus measures started to allow limited reopening.

National theater chains AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas, which run the AMC Classic Galaxy 16 and Regal Jewel 16 Cinema, respectively, have each made announcements targeting reopening dates in July. Premiere Cinemas, which operates Waco’s Premiere Cinema 6, did not reply to questions about its reopening.

To comply with state reopening guidelines, the Hippodrome will determine seating spacing. Small groups may sit together with two empty seats between each viewer or group and alternate rows empty. Online customers will not be able to choose their seats, but box office personnel will determine seating to ensure proper spacing.

Those standing in box office lines must leave 6 feet between them, and theater personnel in the lobby will watch to make sure spacing is adequate, Noah said. Theaters will be cleaned and sanitized between each screening, and the Hippodrome’s bathrooms will be sanitized every two hours.

Social spacing also will be the rule at the Raleigh, where tables have been removed to allow more room between patrons, shrinking occupancy to 13 diners. The Hippodrome’s Hightop, however, will remain closed.

The Raleigh also will offer to-go orders and curbside delivery for the first time. Moviegoers can still order food and drink in the theaters and can order from the Raleigh to take into the theaters, Noah said.

The Hippodrome’s gradual reopening this week is the first local in-person moviegoing opportunity for many in Waco. Home quarantines and sheltering in place have led millions of Americans to replace regular visits to movie theaters with watching streaming video at home.

Video on Demand offerings, where viewers pay a fee to watch a film release online or over their television, also have seen a boost, with “Trolls World Tour” bringing in a surprising $100 million in Video on Demand rentals when it could not be shown in theaters.

“Trolls World Tour” now is one of several Video on Demand releases making their Hippodrome debuts this week. Noah said the Pixar animated film “Onward” had tied up several Hippodrome screens in the weeks before the shutdown, shouldering out releases including “I Still Believe” and “The Way Back.”

Now those films can come back.

As with so much during the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows for sure what is next. With Hollywood studios busy postponing their summer blockbusters into the fall and beyond, the next major film release still on the books is the July 16 premiere of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”

Major theater chains have not announced any timetable for reopening, though industry speculation suggests chains may show a mix of classics and previously released films in the weeks before first-run movies return.

The film distributors that provide the Hippodrome’s movies may offer something similar, Noah said.

The situation for live concerts is even more uncertain. Most of the Hippodrome’s live concerts this spring have moved to dates in the fall and winter, but it remains unknown what concerts with audiences would look like with social distancing in effect. Noah said the theater plans to try more live streaming of performers on the Hippodrome stage in the weeks ahead .

The Hippodrome’s Austin Avenue neighbor Cultivate 7twelve will reopen Thursday with hours of noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and a new exhibit by artist Katy Ward. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum will reopen to the public Monday, and the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute is planning to reopen Thursday.

Photo gallery: Today’s top pics — coronavirus outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Riverfront development underway, demolition of old city buildings to start soon

Work on the sweeping Riverfront project formerly known as the Brazos Promenade development has finally started.

Last month, the Waco City Council signed off on an April 15 start day for Catalyst Urban Development’s plans to turn the several blocks of city-owned riverfront property into a mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, apartments and a hotel. The project was first announced in December 2015. Now, parts of the site are fenced off as crews prepare to demolish some city of Waco buildings that still sit on the property.

The area is now under the new name “Riverfront.” The residential development will be called Riverfront Lofts, and any hotel that joins the development will have “at the riverfront” added to its name.

“We’re trying to make it easy so a resident, business owner or anyone in between in Waco can say ‘let’s go to the riverfront,’” Catalyst co-founder Paris Rutherford said.

Deputy City Manger Bradley Ford said the city will remain involved, monitoring the construction of public infrastructure as it is built.

“Any time you build multimillion dollars of streets, sewer and water, as well as the farmers market improvements, we want to make sure it’s done to our specifications,” Ford said. “That’s going to involve a third-party construction manager we’re going to employ.”

The Waco Downtown Farmers Market got its start on city property that became part of the development, and the market has been operating out of a downtown parking lot while Catalyst gets to work on incorporating a place for it to return to along the river.

After demolition, crews will start on site infrastructure including storm sewers and utility lines.

“We’re in abatement of the existing structures that are out there,” Rutherford said. “There was materials that need to be removed to meet safety requirements before they’re demolished.”

The project originally included four phases of development and construction, and after multiple delays Catalyst dropped the fourth phase altogether. Rutherford said the fourth phase would have been located in the far northeast corner of the property.

“We were looking at a couple of restaurants,” Rutherford said. “I’m sure we could probably make that up in our other phases. I don’t think, in the end, we’re going to be too far off from what we were thinking before.”

Rutherford said the area, which is currently home to an asphalt parking lot and is in a flood plain, would have been difficult to develop.

The first phase will include work on three blocks along Webster Avenue and University Parks Drive to build apartments, with some room for offices and commercial spaces. The second phase would include restaurants and retail, and the third phase will bring more of the same.

“We are all underway, and we have no plans to slow up,” Rutherford said.

The first facilities are expected to open in about a year, with other openings following over the next 20 months or so.

“We’ve been in discussions for a while now with some hotel groups and operators and we’ll continue those,” Rutherford said. “Meanwhile we’re also in conversations with folks from a larger, destination restaurant and venue standpoint for what’s out on the river.”

Rutherford said if a destination restaurant decides to come to the riverfront, work will start immediately, regardless of what phase of construction the project is in.

“If you look at a use that draws from a larger area, that has a combination of indoor and outdoor dining and also has music, you can go there and do multiple things,” Rutherford said. “You can listen to music, you can get food, you can sit inside or out, so it’s good in the winter and summer. That’s what we’re after, an all-inclusive, all-encompassing experience along the river.”

Local medical experts stress personal safety measures as businesses reopen

Little is certain as Texas businesses start their first full week under new reopening guidelines, but continued social distancing, hand washing and the use of masks will be more important than ever, local health experts said.

The state’s phased reopening plan got underway Friday, a day after 50 Texans died of COVID-19, the disease’s deadliest day in the state. Restrictions limiting many businesses that had been closed under state orders to 25% of their normal capacity could be eased further in two weeks, pending officials’ review of COVID-19 data in each county.

McLennan County reported no new confirmed COVID-19 cases Saturday, leaving the total at 91, including four residents who have died, 10 who have active infections, and 77 who have recovered. Local health officials are monitoring 82 people based on their contacts, and two residents were hospitalized with the disease as of Saturday, according to covidwaco.com.

It is impossible to predict what will happen next when so much about the virus remains unknown, said Jeff Levin, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Baylor University.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Levin said. “I think, just speaking for Central Texas, the plan is reasonable.”

He said Texas’ phased approach is more sensible than plans pursued by states including Georgia, where businesses were allowed to reopen all at once, a move Levin said he finds “astonishingly reckless.”

“At some point, we needed to do this,” Levin said. “The curve for Central Texas has evened out, and we weren’t hit that hard.”

He said the tentative plan still allows for some flexibility, and can be walked back if reopening leads to outbreaks.

“As long as it’s phased in, as long as there’s oversight, let’s try,” Levin said. “My concern, over the entirety of the outbreak, has been that there’s so many parameters we just don’t know.”

The two-week waiting period between phases is based on the two weeks it can take people to present symptoms of infection after initial exposure to the virus. Levin said a waiting period makes sense, but three-weeks increments may have provided a helpful dose of caution.

“At a certain level, anything the governor could decide to do, people could pick at, perhaps with good cause.” Levin said. “I think it’s good we’re trying to step back a little. At the same time, I’m very grateful we’re not following the Georgia model.”

Jessica Peck, a pediatric nurse practitioner and professor at Baylor University who teaches policy, said a glut of information that has not been carefully vetted can be just as bad as a lack of information.

As medical professionals worldwide race to study the virus, some medical journals are waiving peer review requirements and moving quickly to publish new information and studies as soon as possible, Peck said. That means everyone should apply extra scrutiny when reading a study that has not been peer-reviewed, something they might not know to look for.

“Things are happening at breakneck speed, and science is slow,” Peck said. “If you have a study, you get the appropriate approvals, you do it, you analyze your data and then publish it, and you’re talking about processes that take two to three years. Now, we have processes that take two to three months.”

Peck compared COVID-19’s unprecedented impact to another disaster, Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“No one could have prepared for 51 inches of rain in three days, and it’s kind of the same thing,” Peck said. “This has just spread in a way we could not imagine and no one anticipated.”

Peck said limited information about the disease’s prevalence also makes public health decisions difficult.

“It’s hard, but every time you have leadership engaging in decisions that impact human life, then we’re always going to try to err on the side of caution,” Peck said. “All in all, I think the (Texas) plan is reasonable. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about how much testing we think we need to have in order to make reopening more safe.”

She said she has seen discussion of figures ranging between 500,000 and 2 million tests per day.

“We’re just going to have to rely on our local public health officials and our medical systems to do the best they can in an unprecedented situation. … I think we’ve had about 50 Texas counties that have no cases so far, but a lot of those counties have had no testing either,” Peck said. “Testing and surveillance is going to be really important going forward.”

In the meantime, it is up to individuals to act responsibly for the sake of others, she said.

“The general public, we have very limited influence as far as testing or whether or not the governor says he’s going to open something or not, but those (personal safety) measures are going to be the most important things to practice just as responsible citizens,” Peck said.

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District released a statement urging residents to continue wearing face coverings in public and maintaining 6 feet of separation from others. The city and county also are continuing to encourage residents only to leave home for essential activities.

“The phased approach to reopening is appropriate for our community because we continue to have a low number of cases and never over-stressed the hospital systems,” according to the statement. “There may be a small increase in cases, but a large surge of cases is not expected if we can identify new cases early and appropriately isolate and quarantine contacts. The Public Health District will continue to monitor and conduct contact tracing for COVID-19 cases and close contacts.”

Waco colleges prepare for limited return of students

Some McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College students will return to their campuses in upcoming weeks as school administrators work to accommodate hands-on training requirements with new coronavirus control measures of social distancing and sanitizing.

Students at both colleges have been completing their spring semester online since mid-March after concerns about coronavirus spread caused administrators to cancel in-person classes and activities.

The return begins Monday for TSTC students in 26 degree plans in which hands-on training and instruction are a required part of their degree plan or certification. Programs affected include aviation and automotive technologies, biomedical technology, culinary arts, plumbing and pipe fitting technologies and cybersecurity.

Similar plans are in the works at McLennan Community College, where administrators hope to allow students in the school’s workforce education and health services sequences who need hands-on training for their degrees to do so by June. The college also intends to reopen its Child Development Center by May 18.

Fred Hills, MCC vice president for instruction, said students’ face-to-face training would be reconfigured for smaller group sizes and distancing between students and instructors, as well as other campus protocols such as sanitization.

Health professions degree candidates may find their required clinicals and on-site experience delayed into the fall due to current hospital staffing restrictions and operations changes forced by the coronavirus pandemic. Ascension Providence will not allow any student clinicals until August, while Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center is only taking associate’s degree nursing students, Hills said.

Other workforce programs facing a challenge in lining up interns and on-the-job experience include the college’s new hospitality management program and the paramedicine program, which requires student time in ambulances.

The college’s child development center, which provides instruction and oversight for approximately 40 children, had closed in mid-March after running out of supplies in the early days of the coronavirus shutdown, Hills said. Now resupplied and under recommended guidelines for personal spacing, building access and sanitation, the center should be back in operation by the middle of the month, he said.

MCC officials also are working on restarting individual horse riding lessons at Highlander Ranch this month, while reconfiguring the school’s annual Kids Camp to allow in-person attendance on a limited scale. Continuing education and corporate training offerings will continue to be offered online.

MCC’s regular summer and minimester classes will be held online with plans underway to restart in-person classes this fall with a return to online instruction if needed.

Baylor University’s summer courses will be conducted online with camps and on-campus events canceled through June. Baylor libraries and the Martin Museum of Art are closed through June 1.

Administrators will begin phasing in on-campus critical operations and services in June, followed by administration and business operations and support services with a return of students and faculty members near the beginning of the fall semester.

Photo gallery: Today’s top pics — coronavirus outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Bikers and car buffs gather at Richland Mall for the “Won’t Back Down Community Parade.” Over 150 bikes and cars traveled twice around Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest to show their support for health care workers. They later gathered for a prayer outside Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest.